Up the Road From the Open: Ordeal by Asparagus, Death by Bacon, and the Formby Hippo

formbyasparagus Less than an hour up the Lancashire coast from Royal Liverpool Golf Club, where the 2014 Open was held, is the village of Formby, which is the home of two terrific courses, Formby Golf Club and Formby Ladies Golf Club. (It’s also the home of a forgettable Florida-style golf course, called Formby Hall.) Formby Golf Club abuts the Ainsdale Sand Dunes National Nature Reserve, one whose attractions is a small plot on which farmers grow asparagus, a once significant local crop. A man I met during a trip to the region last year told me that banquets for area golf-club captains held at Formby Golf Club had once been “ordeals by asparagus,” because diners had to be careful not to drip butter onto their red-silk tailcoats. I visited the Ainsdale dunes one afternoon between rounds, and, among other things, studied an informative historical display.

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I also bought a cup of coffee at a mobile stand, which was operated by a middle-aged couple.

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The man, whose name was Phil, noticed my golf cap and invited me to play golf with him and his son, Sean, at Southport & Ainsdale, a few miles farther up the road, where he was a member. We played a day or two later. The course is one of my many favorites in the area.

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Phil is a retired Merseyside policeman. At lunch after our round, I asked him what his toughest case as a cop had been, and he told me about a forty-three-year-old woman who had died under mysterious circumstances. “I attended her autopsy,” he said, “because she was from a tough neighborhood and there was a presumption of foul play.” The pathologist was baffled, but then, as he was finishing up, he noticed something odd in her throat and gripped it with a clamp—like that scene in “Twin Peaks” in which Special Agent Dale Cooper finds a typed letter “R” under Laura Palmer’s fingernail. Phil said, “It was a piece of bacon rind, six or seven inches long. She had choked to death on a bacon sandwich”—an unsettling thought, since that’s what I was having for lunch, and since bacon is pretty much the No. 1 nutrient of the Sunday Morning Group.

Incidentally, Formby has foxes in addition to asparagus:

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And Southport & Ainsdale has rabbits:

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And Formby also has the Formby Hippo—about which I may have more to say later.

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British Open Countdown: Birthplace of the Beatles

Other members of the tour group I joined in 1983, Strawberry Field, Liverpool. The photographer is Steve Shipman.

Almost thirty years ago, on assignment for a British newspaper and an American magazine, I traveled to England with a tour group of sixty-seven American Beatles fans. (The tour members’ interest in the Beatles was not casual; one woman had tried to kill herself, twice, after the murder of John Lennon.) Our itinerary was divided between London—where we visited EMI’s Abbey Road Studios, drove past the apartment where Brian Epstein committed suicide, and stripped leaves from a shrub on property formerly owned by Paul McCartney—and Liverpool, which the tour members viewed as the promised land, and which is twenty-five miles as the seagull flies from Royal Lytham & St. Annes, where the Open begins this week.

Penny Lane, Liverpool, 1983.

The statement “We’re going to Liverpool on holiday” has no exact equivalent in American English. (Roughly comparable: “We’re spending our honeymoon in Cleveland.”) Londoners snorted derisively when we mentioned our destination. “It’s an industrial city but not an industrious one,” I was told, through smirking laughter, in a London pub. Even Liverpuddlians were taken aback by the tour members’ enthusiasm. They were used to being the butt of jokes, not the objects of adoration.

The “shelter in the middle of the roundabout,” Penny Lane, Liverpool, 1983.

For a non-fanatic, Liverpool’s charms are harder to see, but they exist, as I’ve been reminded each time I’ve returned. The city’s suburbs and their fabled golf courses are lovely—specially Formby and the villages of the Wirral. The city itself is not as bleak as it’s made out to be; even in the seedier precincts along the wharves, you can catch glimpses of what used to be one of the world’s premier seaports. And, of course, the Beatles.

Celeste Simone Sabatini, American Beatles lover, Liverpool, 1983.

At the time of that initial trip, I was still almost a decade away from discovering golf; when I first went back, in the mid-1990s, I had time for nothing else. The Beatles were still a presence, though. One day, when I couldn’t get on anywhere else, I played a round at Southport Municipal Golf Club. The course wasn’t much, and many of the regulars were local lowlifes who had been prompted by the excitement of the Ryder Cup to give up rugby for golf, which they treated as a contact sport.

Still, I had fun, as I always do. One of my playing partners was a retired businessman who had recently given up tennis for golf but whose age, he said, made him undesirable as a candidate for membership at the distinguished private clubs in the area. When I asked him about his working years in Liverpool, he said, “I knew Jim McCartney, who was Paul’s father. We were both in the cotton business, and his office was next to mine. There was a time when we were both dealing in Iranian cotton. I had better shippers and was offering a better price, but Jim was getting all the business. I later found out why: he supplied a signed photograph of the Beatles with every order. He used to fret terribly about Paul’s future.  He desperately wanted him to go to university, because what sort of future could there be for a musician?”

Sunbathing, British-style, on the beach at Blackpool, 1983. The tower in the upper right hand corner is visible from Royal Lytham & St. Annes.